This is an Archive Sermon, from 2020, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary.
There is no video version this week.
If I can be personal for a moment,
I want to echo Wendell Berry’s poem about trees:
“They are the advent they await.”
Advent, an arrival or emergence, or
as we say in church-speak, a coming.
Trees are and do Advent –
they arrive without notice,
a seed in the soil
as anonymous as an infant
born into poverty at night
hidden from sight.
Trees are the thing they await,
both the recipient
and pure embodiment
Trees are that “light come down to earth”
consumed and processed
and transformed into more and greater tree.
Truly, we do not think of them as such,
but they are channels of sunlight
absorbed and changed into
bark and stem and leaf.
You likely think I am nuts now,
but truly, trees are perhaps
the most heavenly creatures on earth –
their very life a benediction (or blessing)
to the rest of us.
As Wendell Berry says, we “walk on (their) radiance
(and are) amazed.”
But they are also “a benediction said
over the living and the dead” –
literally granting comfort and shade
above our graves.
They bless us in life and death.
We pray for light and life
every dang time we open a prayer book,
and there they are –
trees all around us,
life and light blessing us while
we all but ignore them.
Trees are so god-like,
and our ignorance and negligence,
and at times downright belligerence toward them,
is just so darn human.
Jesus was hung on a tree,
one that itself had been tortured into wood.
We make that ragged wood of the cross
our symbol of holiness
instead of the tree from which it came –
also very human of us.
I don’t want to over-do this metaphor
but trees are potent symbols of life,
and the veritable incarnation of light
and its presence among us even on a cloud-filled day.
Why am I talking about trees?
Glad you asked.
I once read a quote in an interview
with the aging folk singer, Joni Mitchell.
The interviewer asked Joni if she ever got disillusioned.
“No,” she immediately replied,
“because I never have any illusions.”
You see, it is illusions that, in the end,
cause us to become cynical and disillusioned.
What we need is VISION, not illusion
and many people – especially many idealistic people –
confuse those two.
Isaiah is all about vision
rather than illusion.
It is an easy and common mistake
to imagine that Isaiah
is creating a specific set of criteria
by which to discern
God’s presence in the world.
“When the desert gets to be like this,
then we will know God is with us.”
But that is what his poem says
only if we read it as a formula
or the directions for a how-to manual
instead of as poetry.
First of all, we are not wilderness people.
We do not live in a desert –
in fact, just the opposite.
We live along or near a lake,
a giant blue lake
fed by roaring tributaries
pouring off dramatic waterfalls
and adorned with vineyards,
forests, and orchards.
We are Hobbits
who live in the lush green Shire,
not denizens of Isaiah’s desert –
or John the Baptist’s wilderness,
or any of the Biblical dryness metaphors.
Using desert metaphors for us
is like referring to Jesus as the bread of life in Japan,
where rice is the staple.
The VISION in Isaiah’s poetry
is not embedded in topography
or geological features of the land.
They are metaphors, like Wendell Berry’s trees.
They are metaphors
mouthing to us in whispers
about when we can be sure that God is
present and at work
in the world about us.
Here is how I translate his metaphors.
God is present and at work
where the hawks of war
fall in love with the doves of peace
and their progeny is hope.
God is present and at work
when power is used to raise up the powerless
and make vulnerable
those who are steadfastly arrogant.
God is present and at work
when our economy is driven by the invisible hand
of fairness and equity
instead of moved by the clutch of scarcity
or the suction of gluttony.
That to me, is the substance of Isaiah’s vision.
But our vision generally does not come from Isaiah,
instead, we get our vision
or any other electronic sieve
that filters the universe
into small enough particles
that they can be transmitted by electrons
into 15 second sound-bytes,
or 30 second streaming images,
or a “generous” two-minute expose.
Our news…our vision…
our very perspective on the world,
is filtered into manageable sound bites
and polished into a lens
by businesses, organizations, and platforms
driven by profit,
rather than a prophet of the Most High God!
It is as if we are presented
with a daily paint-by-numbers world
with a few stray dots
we are directed to color in
and told which colors to use, and then,
we are told what the image is
we are supposed to see.
You and I do not actually know
what is going on in the world.
We only get briefings
from people who want us to see the world
in a particular way – their way;
the way that is best for them
to have us see it.
But here is the laughable part.
They do not know
what is happening in the world either.
The idea that anyone has the right perch
and a good view
of what is actually taking place in world
is an illusion.
that there is a constellation of facts out there
that can be gathered,
and that once pulled together for us
can be added up like an equation…
to give us “Reality”
with a capital R – is an illusion.
We do not get to see “reality”
we only get to see very small snippets
of life as we experience it;
and then we get to salt it
with a conglomeration of information,
some of which is helpful
but a preponderance of which, is not.
So, let’s back up,
and back away from CNN and FOX
and that barrage of information,
whatever its source.
Let’s instead, go sit by the lake.
I imagine that all of us
have had the experience
of sitting by a lake or pond –
one small enough
to have an apron of trees around it.
Seated there at the water’s edge,
we see the surface of the of lake or pond
and the tangle of trees
stretching up and out toward the sun,
and in the midst of it all,
we see the chaos of textures and colors
and we can probably hear a cacophony of sounds.
If we sit there long enough,
and wait patiently enough,
our eyes will actually adjust to the abundance.
Think about that – our eyes
will adjust to the abundance
and we will see more of what is there.
In the same way as we wait for our vision
to adjust to the dark,
if we are patient at the water’s edge
we will see a stunning array of detail emerge.
We will see
the dance of light upon the carpet of shadows.
We will see
the complexity of grasses
and an almost wasteful variety flowers and plants –
especially if we are there in the growing season.
But even in winter,
we can see a reckless variety of once green bodies
poking out of the snow
or leaning in all different directions
like a bad haircut.
We will hear
a symphony of natural music
played by the freakish vocal instruments
of chitterling birds,
and even the strings of the wind.
If we sat there long enough,
this intricate canvass of life will change by season
over and over and over and over again.
Autumn with its subdued colors and receding hairline;
Winter with its purity and milk of God;
Spring with its scent of life and squeal of green;
Summer in all of its full-bodied shapeliness.
Were we patient enough,
were we very good listeners
were we to have the studied vision of a cat,
we would see this year-long scene
as one whole turn of the page.
If we had the vision,
instead of looking upon its minion of component parts
and seeing them as separate and discrete activities,
we would see it as a rolling and rippling whole.
But even if we had the patience and vision of a tree
to see the wonderful wholeness of lake and seasons,
we still would not actually see it.
That is because there is so much else going on within it.
We still would not have seen the microbiology;
not have witnessed the microbes at work
in the moist wet soil along its banks.
We would not have perceived
the interaction of worms and acid and decay
within the blankets of leaf-strewn mud on its icy bottom.
We would have
witnessed the trees changing color,
but hidden from our sight would be
the thickening liquid sucked up from their roots
and pumped like blood to the vessels in their leaves.
We would have
enjoyed the sparkling surface of the water,
but never have guessed
the presence of a water table
resting beneath the green stubbled earth,
and that even that invisible body of water
ebbs and flows up and down by a connecting aquifer
that roars like a river
still deeper in the soul of the earth.
Standing by the exquisite elegance of the lake,
and having even an inkling
of how much life
and how many relationships
form the matrix of that exquisite web,
we understand CNN and FOX give us a 100-mph view
and call it the world.
But that view is not the world.
It is a view. It is a profit-driven and power-hungry view.
We know instead,
and Isaiah is telling us so,
that the world is composed of billions,
perhaps trillions of lakes and ponds – and please,
that’s a metaphor –
each with their own ecosystem
and yet inter-connected
with every other ecosystem
and forming a magnificent, single wholeness.
We could sit and study for an entire year
just one pond,
just one amazing day
just one moment in our lives,
and still we would not have the vision to see it.
The idea that we see it or know it,
is an illusion.
The way to keep from being DISillusioned
is to abandon the arrogance of illusion.
Is God present and at work in the world about us?
It does not seem so
if CNN, Facebook, or FOX is our lens.
But those who take the time,
who have the patience,
whose curiosity will allow,
and who have the eyes to see,
will know that God is present
and at work even here…even now.
If we are looking in the newspaper
or on television
or in our favorite online sources
for where God is carpeting whole nations
with peace and cures and prosperity,
then our ability to see God is diminished.
If we are waiting for the power-mongers in Washington
or Albany or the county or city
to suddenly speak with honesty
and act with integrity,
then we will become cynical.
If we are following our own vision
and insisting that WE KNOW
what the world is supposed to be like,
as if it had a script that follows a plot
and arrives at a happy ending
penned to our own liking, then we will be crushed.
If we are holding God
to the exact words that appear in Isaiah
or to some mystic poet we read somewhere,
then we will become rigid
like anything else that has been dead that long.
To see the movement of God
here and now,
present and at work in our own lives,
we must be prepared
to look without expectation,
to listen without talking,
to observe without planning,
to feel without protecting,
to study without proving.
As we approach the Big Day of Christmas
and tell the story of Jesus born in a barn,
consider how many years
Nelson Mandela was in prison
before the world ever heard of him!
Think about how many seasons that tree lived
before you ever noticed it.
As we approach Christmas
and assume it is about a baby being born
late at night under a star
instead of a poem about God’s presence
here and now in our midst,
consider how many acts of kindness,
how many small acts of love,
how many life-changing encounters,
how many transforming moments
will never get one bit of ink or airtime,
and how few of them you or I will ever know about.
Consider how knowing about them
might change our vision
or at the very least, subvert our illusions.
Coming up through the roots of the tree
and feeding its leaves;
deep in the soil where death is refashioned into life;
and under the surface of the water
where a universe thrives,
God is present and at work.
There are 16 days left in this worn-out old year
and instead of rushing to the end,
I invite us to slow down,
take a deep breath,
and observe the small, the ordinary
the neglected elements, moments
in our busy lives.
If we do, I suspect we will be able to see that
God is present and at work.
But you don’t have to take my word for it,
go out and touch the bark of a tree
and feel the naked little stems on its branches,
and poke around to notice a hint of its roots.
Realize what you feel
and what you see
is light. Sunlight.
Present, right there with you.